An Appeal –Bring the Maroon to the Foreground in Black Intellectual History

Great Dismal Swamp, the historical hide of out of maroons, (Wikimedia Commons)

Within the larger narrative of slave resistance, maroons offered a unique experiment. They created and exposed to whites and blacks an alternative to life in bondage, an alternative to free life in a slave society, and an alternative to free life in a free state. Whatever the immediate cause of their marronage, they opted to exile themselves from a despotic, discriminatory society. Their removal to the wilds was not only a denunciation of the social and political order of the land but more profoundly a radical ideological and very concrete rupture that left no place for compromise. The people who continued to live in seclusion in the Great Dismal Swamp after Emancipation…are the best example of this rupture. The end of slavery was not to them the watershed event it represented for runaways and the people still enslaved. They wanted freedom on their own terms, not those of the larger society, and there was therefore no reason for them to leave their communities after the abolition of slavery.

-Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons

Glancing over Twitter discussions on anti-Blackness and COVID-19 one notices a trend. The accusation that states are proposing re-opening only now when it is clear that it is Black people who are most at risk of succumbing to the disease is met with rolled eyes and an annoyed “of course they are” from Black Twitter. The accusation — which may be an accusation that a crime against humanity is currently being perpetrated— does not seem to be considered a crisis but routine. It is as if news of genocidal practice should elicit only a “what else is new?” Even conspiracy theories that declare that a deliberate program of anti-Black genocide (“the plandemic”) is underway seem to be offered in a tone more of resignation than of alarm.

Since at least the immolation and breaking-wheel executions of Black people in New York, 1712, white conservatives have killed Black people en masse and without interruption in the American colony. This bombardment from white supremacist society, its incessancy, results in an exhaustion that is felt across much of Black resistance. The ubiquity, the spectacle and the frequency of the killings are weapons in themselves. At the same time they work to shield the killers. Negrophobic violence becomes understood less as individual events to be analyzed and addressed than as a natural part of our world. They are a blood tapestry pinned up behind the social order; one that has been up so long no one can imagine what the place would look like without it. It is sometimes pointed to; periodically meaninglessnesses are uttered: “…exposes racial disparities in the health industry long plaguing this country,”; “the legacy of race and policing in this country”;  and thus dutifully acknowledged, there is a return to the business of the day. We are expected to build our homes within the malaise of routinized, Negrophobic white supremacist catastrophe.

Police sport-hunting, conservative mass shootings, and attempted bombings are not taken to be major events that require a fundamental structural change of society like, say, the 2019 mass shootings in Christchurch mosques did in New Zealand, or 9/11. Neither do they occur in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s, which threatened to ignite incidents like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings or a traffic stop in Watts, 1965 into a galvanizing moment. They are “another one,” merely part of the banality of life in American racism. To be sure, resignation, sarcasm and rolled eyes are political and important performances of resistance. But they are often the weapons of the dominated against the dominating. When that domination means atrocity so frequent its reporting becomes tedious, and tens of thousands of disproportionately Black Covid-19 deaths are responded to with a sigh; when political speech about the racial disparities that have meant mass graves carry no imperative; when the jails and prisons and other warehouses of resistance have now achieved the contamination levels of the slave ship’s hold, we are (as we have always been) at the “break the glass in case of emergency” stage of Anti-Blackness in the colony. Interpretive frameworks need refreshing, and it is time to consider what other toolboxes beyond those of performed distaste can be accessed.

There are other spaces of subalternity, other genealogical strands of African-American intellectual history that need to be made more visible and accessed more often at this moment. There are radically divergent trajectories in African-American history that should not be generalized as the story of a single community. Especially if the purpose of such generalizing is to tie the figure of that invented community to the state. Through the fictive ethnicity “Black folk,” scholars like Michael Eric Dyson can represent Black people of diverse political views as “critically-patriotic” and in a “lover’s quarrel1 with America. In so doing they are able to render invisible other historical communities of Black people that were and are no such thing. My appeal? End this invisibility. Bring the maroon to the foreground in African-American intellectual history.

Marronage, as a politics, does not hold the state’s feet to the fire — at least not in the hopes that it will be improved. It does not think or hope the state will one day get better. Indeed, Black marronage, is by definition the escape from the central spaces of the white supremacist order, a voting with the feet, is an expression of a fundamental pessimism about the colony’s capacity to improve and to do so in a timely fashion. Maroon politics recognizes the fugitive’s inability to overturn the state of things and so flees to spaces where it is possible to live outside of the reach of racist power. Or, flees and retreats to a better position. 2 In fleeing there is also recognition of settler-colonialism’s incapacity to rid itself of its founding ideology: racist violence. This incapacity, of course, is in liberal ideology 3 represented as a series of “failures.” America is perpetually “failing Black communities,” “failing Black patients,” “failing Black voters,” “failing Black students” etc. Representing incapacity as failure implies the possibility of eventual success. It works to encourage Black resistance back onto the hamster wheel. The maroon is Sisyphus escaped.

Forcing Black people into the drab clothes of patriotism to the colony has always been a struggle. US anti-Blackness has always been a counterweight to attempts to interpellate Black individuals as US national subjects and to socialize Black people into the “dominant mode of national belonging.” The fiction of national space, i.e. the country, within which populations imagine themselves to be located, however, has been more successful. As the settler production of space has become hegemonic and the state effect, 4 in its ideological form as the country has achieved the state of obviousness, 5 Black “folk” like other Americans believe they are in America. They “feel American,” however many the qualifications regarding what particular type of American. They believe that they are “American.” Still the US settler-colony’s foundational anti-Blackness has led to a tension in that interpellation, one that even works itself into the body. “One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” But this struggle is rarely represented as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomenon, nor is the language of exorcism sought out. Rather, it is presented as an unfortunate or tragic, complex existential condition.

But perhaps these admittedly beautiful, famous passages of the early W.E.B DuBois, those in Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and similar texts are given too prominent a role in the dominant (and academic, especially in Intro to African American Studies courses) origin stories of African-American intellectual history. Perhaps they have been allowed to overshadow and exclude other voices. Voices who were not voiced. Voices who were not critically patriotic but also did not pick up a pen because they could not or because they thought they would never be published. Voices that would never be sated by the holding of America’s feet to fire and would not be content until the entire sadist’s race-play experiment was thrown onto the ash heap of history. Voices and texts, say, the critique of arms that was Celia from Missouri’s beating her assaulter and enslaver to death and burning his body. Or of Bras-Coupé’s terrorizing slave-owning New Orleans until he became a mythological figure. Saidiya Hartman describes her practice “as critical fabulation, speculative history, close narration, and documentary poetics. All are methods for engaging and remaking the document, for building story from sampled utterances, photographs, fragments, and sonic traces, for attending to the radical thought of everyday life, for assembling and composing alternative narratives of Black existence.” Might we not extend this practice to the vast world of the unwritten, those forms of resistance that appear in flight? Can we not bring to the fore, the text of marronage, the anti-colonial library of the absent and the unpublished?

Black maroons exist. Marronage is not only an object for historical study, nor a fashion in Black radical scholarship, nor merely a mode of rethinking Blackness as fugitivity. There exists a Black community for whom the possessive pronoun “our” never comes to mind when referring to the country. Those for whom fugitivity is not a model but the colony’s interpretation of the state of our freedom. The presence of non-nationalized Black people has had to exist on the periphery of dominant Blackness, while our historical acts be they flight, plantation arson, or uprisings are annexed into a “larger,” nationalized story of critically-patriotic Black people and reproduced as part of the long Civil Rights movement. Narratives of the fugitive and the rebel are told as if they were always running towards an eventual non-racist America rather than fleeing from just this scam. Our histories are corrected and retold as American history without our consent and in an inclusion that we, by definition, have worked to escape. But this remains true: African-American history is not a subsection of American history. African-America is not exhausted in America — our Blackness is against the state, not expressed inside of it.

Maroon invisibility has always been required for the production of Black people as domesticated, critically-patriotic “Black folk.” It is time that representation includes those of us who choose to lengthen the hyphen in “African-American” a little bit, indeed even for those who would lengthen it until it snaps.

From the position of marronage, criticism is not imagined as coming from within the country but from without. It is a shout from the swamplands of Savannah River, Quilombos, from Nanny Town and the cliffs of Me-no-Sen-You-no-Come. It is from a place where the nationalizing of space and society and the territorialization of human beings as citizens is not a fait accompli. Maroon communities have historically been penciled in on city maps as states of exception; where the full force of the state could be marshaled to smoke out treacherous “property” and put down what was always a threat to white rule. The existence of maroons and the mere possibility of marronage mark a limit to white supremacist hegemony. Moreover, the history of maroon conflict with the state is a history that is not limited to maroons’ self-defense. The critique that is marronage is not beholden to the rules of the state, nor aimed at its improvement. It does not need to remain in a posture of perpetual “resistance.” It creates the possibility of an examination of the state without the pressures of being emotionally bound up within it. Arguing and thinking from such a space of radical distance — out of earshot from the siren song of hope for eventual change in the settler-colony — the nature of the white supremacist institution that is the American nation-state might be seen from a different angle.

What centering maroon positionality will help achieve is the normalization of a fundamental pessimism about the liberatory potential of the white supremacist settler state. The state in its ideological form as the country hails subjects to it, names them, invades or produces central elements of their identity so that resistance and dispassionate criticism of it is rarely unmessy. The white supremacist state, with its hand simultaneously beckoning Black people to it as citizens and stopping it at the gate as n*gger, is the cause of the condition that is double-consciousness. A condition that, perhaps because of all of its complexity, attacks the body via a web from which the prey cannot be perfectly disentangled. This is evidenced in the irony of the “we” pronoun in statements like “we still haven’t gotten over the legacy of racism in this country.” That we is the we of “we sick.” But it is the master that is sick. His home is the pathogen.

Marronage is escape from the subdued, religious trance the faithful collectively experience as being American. Jericho will not fall by clamoring. The faith healers will not excise the anti-Black underpinnings of Wall St. Marronage is apostasy to the cult dogma of eventual equality in settler-colonialism. Its catechism is not an elaboration of liberation theology but of atheism — and it is written in plantation fire. It is a recognition that America, like all states, is a transient phenomenon despite its claims to permanence and its fictions of materiality. America will be outlived by the racism that it engenders. It does not aim to conquer its racist ideologies — it is its sustenance. Marronage does not believe this god will stay Abraham’s hand; it abandons Him for the wilderness. It begins a new faith with the credo that it is not honorable to have faith in the redemptive properties of the settler-colony, but just the opposite. It is profoundly immoral to root for white supremacist institutions, or to partake in its sacrifices no matter how many times they invite us to the altar.

Maroon communities’ critique of the state by their flight; marronage’s pessimism regarding the prospect of future racial justice in the settler-colony, has so far proven analytically sound. More sound than predictions of critical patriots who deface and clip the wings of hope so violently in their stuffing it into a moribund racist experiment. Marronage’s clairvoyance is enough to warrant that the tradition deserves greater visibility in the story of African-American intellectual history. The dominant story of African-American history is a story about a fight to make a racist society just. We rarely hear about the victories we’ve won in our giving up.

It is possible to be post-America. Let the maroon come to town.

  1. Michael Eric Dyson, “Understanding Black Patriotism.” Time Magazine (2008).
  2. It may, in some cases, be useful to think of marronage as the war of position and enslaved peoples’ uprisings as the war of manoeuver. See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, Edited and Translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971).
  3. In this settler-colony liberal ideology must always be read as white supremacist liberal ideology.
  4. Timothy Mitchell argues convincingly that the state is not as it is often imagined, i.e. a material or material-like apparatus, but that “the phenomenon we name ‘the state’ arises from techniques that enable mundane material practices to take on the appearance of an abstract, nonmaterial form.” See Timothy Mitchell, “Society, Economy and the State Effect” in The Anthropology of the State: A reader, ed. Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta (Oxford: Black Publishing, 2006), 169-186.
  5. According to Louis Althusser “obviousness” is the elementary ideological effect. Ideology imposes obviousnesses as obviousnesses.  The recognition of something as “obvious” is proof that ideology is functioning. See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (notes towards an Investigation) in The Anthropology of the State: A reader, ed. Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta (Oxford: Black Publishing, 2006), 86-111. That it is obvious to us that we are in a country is an effect of ideology. Perfection of the state’s (cartographic) ideology is achieved when it is obvious that we are located within it i.e. in its country, or in it as country. It is also the goal of every anti-colonial revolution to make it perfectly obvious that we are no longer in that country. Maroons mark a limit of the state’s cartographic ideology.
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Yannick Marshall

Yannick Giovanni Marshall is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Knox College. He completed his doctorate in African Studies at Columbia University. His dissertation “The Bleaching Carceral: Police, Native and Location in Nairobi, 1844-1906,” supervised by Dr. Joseph Massad, explores whiteness as police-state. He completed an MA in African American Studies at Columbia’s Institute for Research in African American Studies. His thesis was supervised by Dr. Manning Marable and focused on the pan-Africanisms of the subaltern. Marshall’s current research interests include police power, colonial sexualities, colonial whiteness, anti-Blackness, urbanity in East Africa and the US, nationalism and ideology, and indigeneity as anti-colonial anarchism before Anarchism. He writes creatively and is a Pan-Africanist. Follow him on Twitter @furtherblack.

Comments on “An Appeal –Bring the Maroon to the Foreground in Black Intellectual History

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    Wow. That was provocative, enlightening and well laid out. Thank you. As a white guy, it pulled me up short. More to think deeply about.

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    “Marronage… begins a new faith with the credo that it is not honorable to have faith in the redemptive properties of the settler-colony, but just the opposite. It is profoundly immoral to root for white supremacist institutions…”

    Yannick Marshall, thank you for this radical analysis ♡

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    Wow! Profound and enlightening. My ancestors were Marrons who were forced from Jamaica by the British to settle in Nova Scotia. Most, according to records, returned to Sierre Leone due to the harsh treatment and injustices they experienced in Nova Scotia. I am still here so we all did not board that boat to Sierre Leone.

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    I agree maroonage needs to be more mainstream in African American history from an intellectual perspective. I also feel that the communities established and created by “free people of color” prior to the Civil War needs to be brought to the forefront. The stereotyping of the history, heritage and experiences of African Americans, sadly often even include a African Americans ourselves clinging to these “struggles” as if they are ours to fight. Maroonage is a very interesting, not well known topic of discussion inside the USA. Many know more about maroons in the Caribbean and are ignorant about maroon settlements here in America, there were many. I personally believe that this clinging to “movements” and “struggles” is a great disservice to our heritage in that it places our people into a box and ignores the diversity of the black experience.

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    I like this provocation to think more deeply about maroonage and it makes me wonder about what read as a formulation of either accepting the liberal state or being maroons. What does this choice mean in the context of there not existing land outside of the state and a requirement of taxes, permits, water etc? Can we see our essential state as being maroons or quimboleros but know we must run down the hill to get resources and that is our ongoing engagement with the state? Would like to have heard more about how this is being or might be applied.

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    Thank you! As a 1st generation American of Jamaican, Cuban and Bahamian parents, we were taught solely of Nanny of the Maroons…”Queen Nanny.” Much to my surprise and later that of my mother, we learned more about the extensive reach of Maroons while watching Sylviane A. Diuof on a C-SPAN Book TV Program, 2014:

    I gave 7 copies of her book as gifts to family members that year! Thanks to you both.

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